As you may know from my Twitter feed (and if you’re not following, start before I send an angry old Russian woman to box your ears - @tonypetracci) I’ve been writing my first novel, The Trial of Marcus Aurelius, for over a year now. The first draft is finished, clocking in at roughly 143,000 words. I’ve got the story and the characters down, and now it’s time to tackle the yeoman’s work and make the book actually, you know, good. So, I thought I’d start updating you all on the book’s progress and my thoughts on my own evolution as a writer, what I’ve learned, what I still have to learn, and whatnot. But first thing’s first...
“Tony, you’re spoiling your novel before it’s even finished? What’s your problem?”
I’ll explain. The Trial of Marcus Aurelius is historical fiction, which means it’s a bunch of made-up stuff incorporating other stuff that really happened. But historical fiction is not a sub-genre I patronize frequently. The majority of what I’ve been exposed to has incorporated only the giant, textbook-sized events and made up the rest, usually contradicting the very nature of the characters its portraying. This, to put it mildly, frustrates me. In my opinion this signifies a disrespect for history and an inability to recognize a good story. History is brimming with fantastically rich stories that do not require a rewrite. The life of Marcus Aurelius is one of them, and I don’t intend to alter any more of it than I absolutely have to. I’ll change minor details and some of the chronology, nothing that will impact the story, but I will not rewrite history. I’ll extrapolate from it and expand upon it, not ignore or contradict it. All you have to do is read Marcus’ Wikipedia entry, and you’ll know everything that happens in the book. But that’s the plot, not the story, and if the novel works, it will work because of the story.
So... why am I writing a fictional biography of Marcus Aurelius?
A couple of years ago I was thinking about what I wanted my first novel to be. I had a few ideas and started to explore them, crafting characters, concocting plots, writing scenes, just trying to get a handle on one of those ideas and see which one took root. Eventually one of them did, a sort-of fantasy with some interesting, if not entirely original, ideas. I ended up writing a third of a draft before realizing that the story’s narrative and thematic foundation wasn’t as strong as I’d originally thought, and the ending I’d written myself into didn’t resolve anything. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it or recycle some of its elements into something else, but right now those pages are sitting in a drawer (I write longhand).
While all this was going on, and I was writing short stories (which I will continue to do), I was listening to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcast. I was already enthralled, being an enthusiast for ancient Rome, by the time Mike got to Marcus Aurelius’ reign. Mike is excellent at putting a beating human heart into the stone effigies we think of when we hear the names of the famous ancients. Inside Marcus, he put the heart of a long-suffering man forced by circumstance into a life he never wanted, but who rose to meet every challenge and fulfill his responsibility. But when we got to the end of Marcus’ reign, and he had to face the reality of his son Commodus succeeding him, Marcus’ story took a decidedly sad turn. Mike noted how, in his biography of Marcus, Frank McLynn illustrated how Marcus was faced with a stark decision regarding the issue of succession. He knew Commodus was going to be a train wreck of an emperor, but on the other hand, he couldn’t name anyone else. Commodus was his only son. If he named anyone else emperor, the parasites would come out of the woodwork once Marcus was dead and swallow Commodus with their talk of, “Who’s this usurper denying you your birthright? You’re the son of the great Marcus Aurelius! YOU should be draped in the purple!” And Commodus would go, “Yeah!” Before long... civil war. It had happened before, and it would happen again. Therefore Marcus had to name Commodus as his heir... unless he had to name someone else because Commodus wasn’t around to be his heir. So, Marcus either had to name Commodus his successor, or kill his own son.
What must that have felt like, I thought. You dedicate your entire life to fulfilling the gravest responsibility your world can offer someone, against your own wishes, your own desires. In the end you have to make a decision that will ensure all your work was not in vain, and you can’t do it. What would’ve been running through Marcus’ mind as he lay on his deathbed, the Antonine Plague eating away his body? I started reading more about Marcus, and everything I found further convinced me that Marcus' life was a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. I started writing, figuring out the characters and the story and the tone, everything. But I knew that, as a writer, I needed to find my own personal avenue into the story, that deep connection that makes me, as the creator, emotionally and psychologically invested in this story. Eventually I found it. What was it? None of your business. But as soon as I had it, I knew that The Trial of Marcus Aurelius was going to be my first novel.
My goal is to provide new updates every couple of weeks. I’ll probably focus on some different aspect of the work with each new update. I also have a lot of ideas about how I’m going to try to drum up interest in potential readers -- marketing ideas, that sort of thing -- and I’ll let you know about those when it comes time. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. If nothing else, I hope these updates get you a little excited about the prospect of what the novel could be and make you more inclined to check it out once it’s done. But keep coming back here. I’ve got short stories I’ll keep posting too, and for godsake, TWITTER: @tonypetracci.
Thanks for reading, and don’t be the internet.